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Thread: The Legend of the Earp Brothers

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    Senior Member Gladstone's Avatar
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    Post The Legend of the Earp Brothers

    Source: Texas Mercury
    Published: October 26, 2003 Author: Hank Parnell
    For Education and Discussion Only. Not for Commercial Use.


    Hank Parnell

    By my count there are more films and novels dealing with Wyatt Earp than with any other real-life figure of the American West. To many he seems to represent the apogee of the gunfighter as noble knight of the frontier, what the late C.L. Sonnichsen disparagingly called "a Galahad armed with a six-shooter." Others see him as the prototype of the modern "law-enforcement" officer. Yet in real life, Earp was none of the things he has since been made out to be and, indeed, was likely quite the opposite of them in every respect. Which is why I have in my time taken a long, hard look at this unlovely and utterly unimpressive nonentity, and wondered why he has become what we Americans have collectively made of him.

    We all know the story: the virtuous Earps, brothers Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan (and occasionally including the older Jim and/or the younger Warren; the eldest, Newton, stayed well away from Arizona), intent on bringing "law and order" to the lawless frontier town of Tombstone, and with the aid of the tubercular former dentist John "Doc" Holliday, faced down the ruthless Clanton/McLowry (sometimes spelled McLaury) gang of outlaws in a series of confrontations that climaxed at the OK Corral.

    That is one story; the popular story, the legend and the myth. There is, however, another story, a bit more complicated but a lot more factual. It goes something like this: late in 1879, the Earp brothers, having failed at nearly every previous endeavor, came to Tombstone intent on getting rich by whatever means possible. Having learned from their earlier experiences in Wichita—where Wyatt had been stripped of his policeman's job, arrested for disturbing the peace, and almost literally "run out of town"—and Dodge City, the Earp brothers quickly set about to obtain a law-enforcement position for one or more of their number, the better to cloak their activities with the mantle of respectability and legality, and to keep from being arrested whenever they committed a crime.

    Virgil managed to persuade the ineffectual U.S. Marshal for the Arizona Territory, Crawley Dake, to issue him a deputy U.S. Marshal's badge. Dake, like most U.S. Marshals of the time, was a political appointee who did little but polish his chair with his behind in the territorial capital, getting rich on his percentage of fees and other graft while his deputies did all the real work. Wyatt managed to get himself a deputy sheriff's badge from Pima County sheriff Charles Shibell, but he was soon dismissed; and when Cochise County was carved out of the larger Pima County, his replacement, John Behan, was appointed to the coveted sheriff's position by Governor John C. "Frontier" Fremont. This was a bitter disappointment to Wyatt; not only did Fremont, a Republican like the Earps, appoint Behan, a Democrat, to the post, but Wyatt lost out on the $30,000 to $40,000 yearly in fees and percentages garnered by the county sheriff from tax collections and various other governmental functions (this incredible figure is due to the silver wealth of the Tombstone mines, which were exceptional in what was otherwise principally cattle country).

    Thus the seeds of enmity between Earp and Behan were sown early on, later to bear bitter and violent fruit. Governor Fremont's decision to appoint Democrat Behan sheriff was no doubt a concession to the fact that Cochise County voters were predominately Democrats. Tombstone, the county seat, boasted a number of Republicans, mainly the big silver-mining interests that had made the town. Others included its naively idealistic and fiercely partisan newspaper editor and soon-to-be-mayor, John Clum, as well as the local judge, Wells Spicer, and, of course, the brothers Earp. The miners themselves, and the local ranchers in the San Pedro river valley, were staunchly Democratic, and among them were the Clantons and the McLowrys.*

    It was widely known that the Clantons and McLowrys, aided by their hangers-on William "Curly Bill" Brocius (real last name Graham) and Johnny Ringo (sometimes wrongly identified as Rhinggold), rustled cattle in Mexico for sale to the military forts and Apache Indian reservations in the area. But the other ranchers in the valley, whose herds remained largely unmolested by the "cowboys," as they were called, turned a blind eye to these activities, and generally embraced the Clanton/McLowry faction as part of their own. (As readers of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove are aware, Texans—even expatriate Texans like the Clantons and McLowrys—considered Mexican beef and horses fair game for cross-border raiding, and did not consider it stealing or rustling in a legal or moral sense.) This situation obtained until the ambush death of patriarch Newman H. "Old Man" Clanton two and a half months before the OK Corral shootout, possibly by Mexican rurales in retaliation for his many forays into Mexico; afterwards, the remnants of the gang turned their attention to their neighbors' herds. But by the time this became a real problem, the Earps were long gone from Arizona; and it remained for John H. "Texas John" Slaughter, a hard-nosed rancher who became Cochise County sheriff, to bring true "law and order" to the Tombstone area.

    In the meantime, the "virtuous" Earps, frustrated in their desire to get rich quick off the taxpayers of the new county, prowled the saloons and gambling halls of Tombstone, living off the money their wives made sewing, without which, as Odie B. Faulk put it in his book Tombstone: Myth and Reality (1972), "they might have been forced to go to work." The one who did find employment was Wyatt, who took a job as shotgun rider for Wells, Fargo and Company, becoming familiar with the local Wells, Fargo agent Marshall Williams, and with the routes and procedures the company took when shipping silver bullion from the Tombstone mines north to the railhead at Benson.

    It was then that the Earps' fortunes began to look up. On October 27, 1880, almost to the day a year before the OK Corral business, a drunken Curly Bill Brocius, busily engaged in the cowboy's favorite pastime, "hurrahing the town" by firing his pistol into the air, accidentally shot and killed town marshal Fred White, who was trying to disarm and arrest him. (Some say Brocius killed White on purpose, using the famous "border roll" or "road-agent's spin," in which the pistol is reversed, finger in the trigger guard, then spun around on the trigger finger back into the firing position. However, it is unlikely that a drunk would try such a maneuver, or that an experienced lawman like White would fall for it. After all, the practice was at least twenty years old, having been perfected by Missouri guerrillas during the Kansas-Missouri "border wars" that preceded the Civil War; hence the term "border roll.")

    Virgil, whom White had deputized to assist him, was appointed by the city council in White's place; but this bit of luck was short-lived, for Virgil lost a special election on November 13 to his opponent Benjamin Sippy, who won by 311 votes to 259; and Virgil lost to Sippy again in the regular election held on January 4, 1881. But it was this vote that elected Epitaph editor Clum mayor; mainly because of his platform to secure the town's lots for their rightful owners—the lots having been transferred to absentee land speculators by the previous administration—and not because of any sudden upsurge in Republican sentiment by Tombstone's predominately Democratic citizenry.

    Then came the event that many consider the crux of the Earp/Clanton affair. On the night of March 15, the stage to Benson was held up in a botched robbery attempt that left popular driver Bud Philpot dead. Shotgun rider Bob Paul heroically saved the day, driving the stage out from under the ambush, and saving the strongbox, which contained some $25,000 in silver. A posse was formed, which included the Earps (Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan) and their hangers-on: Wyatt's former Dodge City employer Bat Masterson, and "Buckskin" Frank Leslie, a murderous saloonkeeper. Also along for the ride was Marshall Williams, the Wells, Fargo agent, and Sheriff Behan and his deputy, Billy Breakenridge. The posse trailed the bandits to the ranch of the Redfield brothers, who were friends of the Clantons; however, the suspect that they collared, one Luther King, named among the other culprits one Bill Leonard, a known crony of Doc Holliday's.

    Rumors soon flew that Holliday had slain Philpot, and that the Earps, in collaboration with Williams, had planned the robbery for Holliday and his friends. Holliday was noticeably absent from Tombstone the night of the attempted holdup. He claimed he had been playing cards in Charleston, a town on the San Pedro River to the southwest of Tombstone; but curiously, he had no witnesses to support this claim. It was then that Holliday's prostitute mistress, "Big Nosed" Kate Elder, alleged to Sheriff Behan in a sworn statement that Holliday had indeed killed Philpot.

    The Earp faction, including editor/mayor Clum, quickly counterclaimed that Behan had gotten Kate drunk and "tricked" this confession out of her. Judge Wells Spicer, another Earp crony, dismissed the charges Behan filed against Holliday, after Wyatt Earp testified at the hearing that he had seen Holliday in Tombstone the night of the abortive holdup, thus providing his tubercular friend with a much-needed alibi. Whereupon Virgil Earp, whom Clum had appointed town marshal on June 6 when Ben Sippy left town, arrested Kate on a drunk-and-disorderly charge, fining her the unprecedented amount of $12.50. This charge was obviously trumped-up, since she and Holliday were by definition "drunk and disorderly"; but Kate, knowing Holliday and the vindictive Earps, got the message, and quickly fled Tombstone, no doubt fearing for her life.

    While all this was going on, the Earps were frantically trying to get a line on the other suspects, either to capture them and clear the Earp name, or to kill them and shut them up before they could further implicate the "virtuous" brothers Earp; take your pick. Meanwhile the stage holdups continued, this time less violent but more successful, netting the thieves large caches of silver; and after each, according to Faulk, "the Earp brothers one by one found it necessary to leave town with heavy suitcases to visit their parents in Colton, California." Things came to a head when, on September 8, one of the holdup men was identified by his use of the phrase "sugar" (meaning loot): T.C. "Frank" Stilwell, a former deputy of Behan's who was now a partner in a Bisbee livery stable with Pete Spence, yet another Earp crony. (Some sources, including the Time-Life Old West series book The Gunfighters by Paul Trachtman, claim Spence was a Clanton crony; but this book, like so many others of its kind, is full of inaccuracies, and assertions made without documentation that too often counter direct eyewitness testimony. In fact, this particular book is one of the worst of its type, despite the many photographs and reproduced documents that give it an air of authenticity.) Behan and his posse arrested both men before the Earps' posse (there were two) arrived, and the two groups escorted the prisoners back to Tombstone.

    Stilwell and Spence were released on bond, and Wyatt began circulating rumors that the two were in cahoots with the Clanton rustling gang, now smarting from the loss of their leader, "Old Man" Clanton, at the hands of the Mexicans. First Leonard, then Spence pointed the finger of accusation toward the Earps, and Wyatt was desperate to find a scapegoat. And who was more handy, and convincing, than the "cowboys," infamous for their cross-border rustling and drunken "hurrahing" of the town?**

    Whether the "cowboys" came to town expressly for the purpose of "killing the Earps," as the Earp-worshipers and mythologizers claim, or merely to buy supplies, as the other side would have it, there is no denying that the night before and the morning of the shootout, the Earps and Holliday did their best to provoke a fight. Both Holliday and Virgil baited an unarmed Ike the night of October 25, Virgil during a poker game at which Sheriff Behan was present! When, the next morning, Virgil and Morgan (whom Virgil had deputized) found Ike armed (a rather understandable reaction on Ike's part, considering the verbal abuse and threats he had received the night before), they took his guns away and coldcocked or "buffaloed" him, a particularly vicious practice to which all the Earps were passionately prone. (This involved hitting their victims on the head with the barrels of their sixshooters hard enough to render them unconscious. Those familiar with the practice only from Western films might never realize that such a blow can cause everything from concussion and skull fracture to subdural hematoma and permanent brain damage, and, in some cases, actually killed those to whom it was done, on the spot.)

    Dragging Ike to court, they fined him an incredible $25 for violating the town ordinance against carrying firearms, a misdemeanor that was hardly ever enforced, and then only selectively—none of the holier-than-thou Earp brothers, it should be noted, ever "buffaloed," charged or fined Doc Holliday, who went about daily in flagrant violation of the ordinance, carrying at least two concealed pistols at all times. Later that morning, Wyatt confronted an unarmed Tom McLowry, leading McLowry's horse up on the boardwalk in front of the store where McLowry was buying supplies, which Wyatt then informed McLowry was a "violation" of yet another town ordinance, and for which McLowry was then viciously "buffaloed" and left lying in the gutter, bleeding.

    Thus was the stage set for the famous "Gunfight at the OK Corral" and its aftermath, which we will look at next time.
    Turman found a copy of The Graduate, and thought highly enough of the story that he made a movie he considered to be 90-percent faithful to the book.

    But Turman and director Mike Nichols made one key adaptation, changing the Braddocks from WASP-y blonde characters into a dark-haired, more ethnic-looking family.

    From NPR's Present at the Creation

    http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/graduate/

    http://www.norcalmovies.com/TheGraduate/tg11.jpg

  2. #2
    Senior Member Gladstone's Avatar
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    Post Legend of the Earp Brothers (II)

    The Legend of the

    Earp Brothers, Part II:

    The OK Corral & its Aftermath

    Hank Parnell

    By one-thirty in the afternoon of October 26th, 1881, rumors were flying that the Earps and the "cowboys" were headed for a fight in the mining boom-town of Tombstone, Arizona. In the pro-Earp version, the Earps and Holliday went to the OK Corral, where the Clanton and McLowry brothers, Ike and Billy, Tom and Frank, along with Billy Claiborne, a small-time rancher and occasional hand on the Clanton rustling forays into Mexico, were gathered and arming themselves for a fight.

    The Earps' professed purpose was to "disarm and arrest” the Clantons and McLorys for that suddenly all-important misdemeanor prohibition on the carrying of firearms within the city limits. According to the Earps' version, Sheriff Behan met the Earps and claimed he had disarmed the "cowboys," whereupon the righteous brothers Earp shouldered him aside contemptuously and proceeded on to their rendezvous with destiny. According to the other side, the five were saddling up their horses and preparing to leave town; Behan intercepted the Earps and Holliday to tell them this, and to ask them to let the cowboys leave in peace, whereupon the self-righteous brothers Earp ignored him, and proceeded on to do their murderous business.

    Likewise, there are two versions of the OK Corral shootout. One is recounted at some length in several popular books on the subject, and is enacted, with varying degrees of faithfulness, in a number of the films based on the Earp myth. It is reenacted every October 26 in Tombstone, Arizona during the town's annual "Helldorado Week" for the tourists. I shall not belabor it here, since it is so common. Indeed, it was given full credence in a recent Discovery Channel presentation, which used the forensic evidence as reported by the Cochise County coroner who examined the bodies to "recreate" the shootout. Interestingly, though of course the program did not state this conclusion, the "reenactment" forced by the consideration of the forensic evidence supports the alternate scenario far better than the popular myth of what the program called "a good arrest gone bad."

    The other version is quoted by Odie B. Faulk in his book Tombstone: Myth and Reality (1972) from the diary of John P. Gray. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, Gray came to Tombstone in 1880, where he worked in the mines and post office for two years before becoming a rancher; it is from Gray's sober observations that Faulk has drawn much of his portrait of life in the old frontier mining town. Gray, who saw the battle, states:

    "The three Earps—Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan—and Doc Holliday had stepped suddenly out on to Fremont Street from the rear entrance of the OK stable lot and immediately commenced firing on the cowboys who were preparing to leave town. ... It was over almost as soon as begun. A play enacted by the Earps to wipe out those cowboys on the pretense of enforcing the law—and carried out under the manner of shooting first and reading the warrant to the dead men afterward. But in this case I doubt if there was ever a warrant issued. The Earps called out, 'Hands up' and began firing almost simultaneously."

    The cowboys, of course, were far from defenseless; they shot Virgil in the arm, Morgan in the leg, and Holliday in the hip. Only Wyatt emerged unscathed. The McLowry brothers and Billy Clanton were killed; both Ike and Billy Claiborne, who were unarmed, took refuge in the nearby Fly's Photographic Gallery -- where, according to the Earps, Behan was also ensconced. The now-famous line, delivered by Wyatt when, purportedly, Ike rushed upon him crying out that he was unarmed -- "Get to fighting or get away!"—is undoubtedly another of Wyatt's many self-serving fictions, since no sane man—which, whatever else might be said about him, Ike Clanton was—would have rushed the guns of an enemy in such an encounter, whether he was unarmed or not.

    And we should for a moment contemplate the aforementioned Discovery Channel program. Though it takes the popular Earp account as fact ("the sworn testimony of law-enforcement officers," which, then as now, as anybody who knows anything about the true nature of our vaunted legal system is aware, is mostly cover-you-actions self-serving lies), it does have to deal with the forensic evidence, and it must stretch the Earp account like Silly Putty to make it "fit." First of all, in reconstructing the actual location of the "gunfight," it was discovered that it took place, not in an open lot or even an open street, but in a rather narrow (eighteen feet wide) alley between buildings; the word "trapped" comes immediately to mind.

    Further, the participants, especially Doc Holliday, are found not to be standing where the Earps' testimony indicated -- Holliday had moved back well out of the mouth of the alley with his shotgun, which he used to kill Tom McLowry while McLowry was trying to reach across the back of his horse to grab his scabbarded Winchester rifle. The program makes a number of preening discoveries of the obvious—such as that people get stressed and excited in a gunfight, and that black-powder smoke from multiple shots tends to obscure the target—and while it discounts (and not unjustifiably) the testimony of Behan and Ike Clanton, it accepts the Earps' testimony, even when admitting that Virgil's and Wyatt's accounts are contradictory! Lamely, the program attempts to blame Holliday for the multiple murders—I mean, "good arrest gone bad," excuse me—by claiming that his cocking of his shotgun's hammers was what precipitated the Clanton/McLowry "resistance" to the "lawful arrest."

    Rather obviously, what really happened was that the Earps and Holliday arrived at the mouth of the alley just as the cowboys were about to mount up and ride out, and, whether words were exchanged first or not, opened fire on them. The cowboys sought, unsuccessfully, to defend themselves, and it is possible that Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne survived because they were unarmed and the Earps probably lacked the sophistication of modern police officers, most of whom know to carry a "throwaway gun" to plant on an unarmed suspect after they have killed him.

    In any event, half an ounce of common sense and logic would tell an impartial peruser of the accounts that the popular (Earp) version of the shootout could not have taken place as claimed; one might not need add that Wyatt Earp was arrested numerous times in California after the turn of the century for various swindles and confidence schemes and that therefore his "sworn testimony" is at the very least highly suspect. Predictably, Judge Wells Spicer swallowed the Earp version, hook, line and sinker when it came to court a month later, after Behan pressed charges against the Earps and Holliday for murder; the charges were, of course, dismissed. Clum, the tireless Earp supporter, propagandized away in the Epitaph; while his rivals at the Nugget took a more dim view of the proceedings. In Clum's version, Sheriff Behan now became the ally of the Clantons and the "cowboys," as were Stilwell and Spence. But Virgil Earp was suspended by the town council from his marshal's job, despite Mayor Clum's efforts; and the miners of Tombstone, as well as the ranchers in the San Pedro Valley, were all bitterly opposed to the Earps and their supporters. Talk circulated of forming a "vigilance committee," and the Earps, Mayor Clum and Judge Spicer all received anonymous threatening letters.

    These threats weren't idle. On December 14, Clum was shot at as he rode out of town on the stage, departing Tombstone for good. Two weeks later, Virgil Earp was ambushed, miraculously surviving, though he lost the use of one arm. On March 18, 1882, Morgan was gunned down while playing pool in a saloon. Stilwell, Spence and Florentino "Indian Charlie" Cruz (a Mexican-Indian halfbreed) were pronounced the killers. Stilwell was killed a few days later at the train station in Tucson where Wyatt and young Warren Earp were shipping the body of Morgan and the crippled Virgil to their parents' home in California. Also present were Wyatt's "posse," consisting of Holliday, Sherman McMasters and "Turkey Creek" Jack Johnson, the latter two former cronies of Earp and Masterson from their Dodge City days. (Bat Masterson had wisely departed Tombstone soon after the robbery attempt that killed Philpot.) According to the Earp version, Wyatt "accidentally" shot Stilwell while trying to apprehend him; Stilwell was purportedly lurking at the train station to ambush the Earps. In fact, Stilwell was in Tucson to meet a witness who was to testify for him on an unrelated charge brought against him in Bisbee the year before. Stilwell's body was found to contain four rifle bullets and two loads of buckshot, hardly evidence of Wyatt's claim of "accident" and "self-defense."

    Wyatt and his "posse" then returned to Tombstone (without the deputy U.S. Marshal badges that the mythology gives them), but only long enough to pack: Behan had murder warrants out on them, and this time he intended to enforce them. While some accounts claim Wyatt lingered long enough to kill "Indian Charlie" Cruz (or a Mexican woodcutter at Spence's cabin whom Earp mistook for Cruz), there is no doubt that Wyatt and his gang departed Arizona Territory post haste, never to return again.

    Of course, Wyatt and his would-be "biographers," both in print and on film, would like to tell us moralistic fantasies about how he and his "posse" tracked down and killed Spence as well as Cruz; how he slew Curly Bill Brocius in a blazing gun battle at a place called Iron Springs; and how Doc Holliday gunned down his evil opposite number, Johnny Ringo. But outside the self-serving tales of Earp and his promoters, there is not a single scrap of hard historical evidence to show that any of these things ever happened. Crawley Dake's bond as U.S. Marshal had been revoked two months before the OK Corral affair, so there was no way he could appoint Wyatt his deputy after Morgan was murdered. Someone surely killed the moody Johnny Ringo, but it may well have been suicide. And Western historian C.L. Sonnichsen reports that contemporaries in late 1920s Arizona assured him that "Curly Bill Brocius" (William Graham) was still very much alive and living under an alias.

    In May of 1882, President Chester A. Arthur issued a proclamation, threatening the citizens of Arizona Territory with martial law if they didn't start behaving themselves. And they did -- in typical Old West style, dispensing swift justice to miscreants, often at the end of a rope. Behan's successor, Bob Hatch, fared no better than his predecessor with the San Pedro outlaws (Behan himself ended up as warden of the infamous Yuma penitentiary); but his successor, the no-nonsense John Slaughter, a former Texas Ranger, was everything Wyatt Earp has since been made out to be, and more and better besides. When Slaughter retired in 1890, crime was no longer a problem in Cochise County.

    Wyatt Earp fled Tombstone to San Francisco, where he met and eventually married Josephine Sarah Marcus, who was not the so-called "actress" named Sadie whom he reportedly estranged from his rival, Sheriff Behan, in Tombstone. He went back to his former occupation of saloonkeeper, having proved a complete failure in real life as a "frontier marshal," a position which in fact he had never even occupied! After bumming around the continental states and up to Alaska, he settled in Los Angeles in 1906, where, outside of an occasional swindle, he mainly sought publicity, trying to interest the fledgling movie industry in his "life story," but without success. Shortly before his death, he gave a series of interviews to a "journalist" named Stuart Lake, and the rest, as they say, is "history"—or rather, more properly, mythology.

    To those steeped in fictional (pseudo-historical) and cinematic accounts of Wyatt Earp, the above must seem the sheerest blasphemy, outright heresy. It wasn't that way in the books, and certainly not in the movies! Yet what I have described is, as best I can determine, the truth, or as close an approximation as an honest student of the period can come. When in doubt, I have stated both sides, and left it to the reader to pick which version he chooses to believe. But the reader must choose; and again, if he has half an ounce of logic and integrity, there is not much doubt as to which choice he must make.

    So why has the myth of Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the OK Corral taken such a hold on the American popular consciousness? That is the question I will attempt to answer next time.
    Last edited by Gladstone; Wednesday, November 5th, 2003 at 08:15 PM.
    Turman found a copy of The Graduate, and thought highly enough of the story that he made a movie he considered to be 90-percent faithful to the book.

    But Turman and director Mike Nichols made one key adaptation, changing the Braddocks from WASP-y blonde characters into a dark-haired, more ethnic-looking family.

    From NPR's Present at the Creation

    http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/graduate/

    http://www.norcalmovies.com/TheGraduate/tg11.jpg

  3. #3
    Senior Member Gladstone's Avatar
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    Post Legend of the Earp Brothers (III)

    Note: I do not particularly care for this writers conclusion, not for the brutally honest way he expresses himself (which I think we need to resolve our serious problems), but that he does not offer any hope (and there is hope) for our Europeon peoples, which is the purpose of this forum.

    The Legend of the
    Earp Brothers, Part III:

    The Myth of Earp and Tombstone



    Hank Parnell

    The distinction between history, which is simply "what happened," and legend, which is what people say happened, and myth, which is what people, for whatever reasons, want to believe happened, is thin and sticky. We can see, I think, how Earp's shameless self- promotion turned his meager history into legend, aided and abetted by Stuart Lake and others; but the transition to myth, which occurred either simultaneously or subsequent to the transition to legend—W.R. Burnett's fictionalized version of the Earp myth, Saint Johnson, appeared scarcely a year after Lake's "biography" was published—presents a sticky problem indeed.

    What is it about this shameless self-promoter, this hollow would-be "idol," this self-made "legend," who in real life was none of the things he later pretended to be, and which others later made him out to be, that has so captured and fired the collective American imagination? The facts of Wyatt Earp's life do not hold the answer to this question; instead, we must look to the fictions, primarily the films, which have supplanted those facts with their unbridled fantasies.

    Of course, there is the argument that the answer lies in Earp's shameless self-promotion: that simply because of it, he, and not a man like John Slaughter, became the legend that spawned a myth. This argument, however, strikes me as facile and superficial. Shameless self-promotion had been an art among many otherwise-unremarkable Westerners since after the Civil War; "Colonel" George W. Nichol's unceasing efforts on behalf of James Butler ("Wild Bill") Hickok are a prime example, and Edward Z.C. Judson (or "Ned Buntline") gave long-barreled Colt revolvers to other frontier lawmen besides Wyatt Earp, none of whom have been featured in popular Western films.*

    And despite narrator Robert Mitchum's assurances at the end of 1993's Tombstone that Earp's cowboy-star pallbearers "wept" at his funeral, no one in Hollywood was interested in making a movie based on Earp's life until after his death; and it is interesting to note that, despite Earp's efforts at self-promotion, those in the film industry who actually knew him apparently never felt that he was a "hero" worthy of portraying on the screen. In fact, it wasn't until the publication of Lake's book Frontier Marshal and Burnett's novel Saint Johnson that Hollywood took a serious interest in Wyatt Earp and his supposed deeds in Tombstone. Indeed, these two, aided and abetted by Billy Breakenridge's Helldorado (1928) and Walter Noble Burns' Tombstone (1927), reinvented Earp in the form with which we are familiar. Earp himself, by then in his grave, really had nothing to do with it. The question, then, is what are those elements that have made the myth of Wyatt Earp so popular, and enduring?

    The earliest film variant of the myth, Edward L. Cahn's Law And Order, based on Burnett's Saint Johnson, is a film after the late Italian director Sergio Leone's heart—it has no women to interfere with its action, which proceeds swiftly to the final resolution in the shootout between Walter Huston's Johnson, aided by Harry Carey's Ed Brandt—the Holliday figure—and the outlaws. Nathan Juran's 1953 remake, with Ronald Reagan and Alex Nicol as Johnson and Brandt, stuck Dorothy Malone in the middle of things; but the original remains the purest, and perhaps most cogent, variant of the myth. Women, and even the other Earp brothers, may be eschewed from the Earp myth without damaging its mythological power; nor does it seem necessary that the outlaw villains comprise the familiar "cowboys" in the form of the brothers Clanton and McLowry, for portrayals of the "cowboys" have varied wildly from film to film. But the same is not true of John Henry "Doc" Holliday and his fictional counterparts.

    For the presence of the Holliday figure in all variants of the myth is, I think, telling; Holliday is essential to the myth of Wyatt Earp. More than the traditional "good-bad man" who often appears in the Western mythology as both the hero's rival and accomplice, Holliday is Earp's dark side, his shadow. Alone, neither Earp nor Holliday sustains mythological interest; but together, they are mythological dynamite. And why might this be? Partly I think it is because, without Holliday, Earp in most incarnations is too good, too "pure"; his affection for and alliance with Holliday is both a weakness, a chink in his otherwise-shining armor, and something that makes him more human, and approachable, as a character.

    Even the most righteous (and far-fetched) portrayal of Earp, by Henry Fonda in John Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946), cannot exist without Victor Mature's Holliday—though Ford apparently could not abide Holliday's troublesome moral ambiguity in his cartoonish black-and-white moral universe, and felt obliged to kill Holliday off (along with Ike Clanton) in his version of the climactic OK Corral shootout.

    Again, while the Earp myth may be stripped of the family (though the image of the "family man" with his many brothers is perhaps another facet of the Earp myth's intrinsic appeal), it cannot be stripped of Holliday. Earp without Holliday is something like Star Trek's Captain Kirk without Mr. Spock—incomplete; since, as with Kirk and Spock, the two are complimentary halves of a single whole. But whereas Kirk is passion and Spock is reason, the Earp/Holliday pairing is not so obviously reducible. It is not simply a matter of Holliday being Earp's "dark side"; for in his way, Earp is Holliday's "light side," and the two characters in a strange way redeem each other—Earp without Holliday is simply "too good to be true," and Holliday without Earp is nothing but a cynical, ruthless killer, otherwise irredeemable by the Western's traditional standards of morality.

    Nowhere is this made more clear than in one of the more recent variants of the myth, George Pan Cosmatos' Tombstone, which bends and distorts the facts and history as shamelessly as Stuart Lake, John Ford or John Sturges ever did, but to tremendous effect. Early in the film, Val Kilmer's Holliday makes the statement that Michael Biehn's psychotic outlaw gunman Johnny Ringo "reminds me of me." Later, when Kurt Russell's Earp faces the possibility of a showdown with Ringo (a task Holliday soon spares him), he asks Holliday, "What makes a man like Ringo?" Holliday replies: "A man like Ringo has a great empty hole right through the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it. [He needs] revenge…for being born." And it is clear that Holliday is describing himself here, as well as Ringo. But at the film's end, when Holliday is on his death-bed, he tells Earp, "You are the most fallible, stubborn, self-deluded, bull-headed man I have ever known in my entire life. Yet withal, you are the only human being in my entire life who ever gave me hope."

    Thus Holliday, whose slow death by consumption encourages the amoral and nihilistic impulses he shares in common with Ringo, nonetheless finds a reason and purpose for his continued existence that Ringo can never possess—his friendship with Earp, the "better man" he can never be, but for whom he will willingly lay down his life. And Earp, who otherwise might be so righteous as to become self-righteous (like the real Wyatt Earp!), is kept firmly grounded in reality by his relationship with the cynical, unidealistic Doc.

    This is made especially clear in Oakley Hall's seminal version of the Earp myth, the 1958 novel Warlock, a highly-fictionalized and highly-stylized deliberate retelling of the whole Tombstone saga. Clay Blaisedell, Hall's version of the mythical Earp, is concerned with "playing strictly by the rules"; but his Holliday-surrogate, the cynical, amoral Tom Morgan, recognizes no rules: "If you want to kill a man," he says, "kill him—it is war, not a silly game with rules!" To which Blaisedell counters that he doesn't want to kill a man, and therefore the "rules" are all-important. Here Hall has gotten to yet another key aspect of the mythic relationship between Earp and Holliday: for Morgan recognizes, as does Holliday, that Blaisedell/Earp's opponents do not play by the rules, that they are out to kill a man; and that without a Morgan, or a Holliday, who is not bound by the "rules," to help and protect him, then a Blaisedell, or an Earp, is rendered vulnerable by the very ethics and morality which he upholds and for which he stands.

    Thus we can see that the two characters need each other to survive: Holliday to keep Earp alive, and Earp to give Holliday a reason for being alive. Without each other, either is vulnerable: Holliday in his cynical nihilism, Earp in his ethical idealism; but together, they are practically invincible. And the practicality of this combined dualism, like Kirk's passion and Spock's reason, may go a long way toward explaining the enormous popularity and resonant chord that this mythical duo strike in the collective American imagination. The balance of "good" and "bad," of idealism and cynicism, of ethical behavior and ruthless survival, that is found in the Earp/Holliday duo, is enormously appealing, since it addresses a very real aspect of human existence, i.e., the fact that no one can always be good, or ethical, and survive. But by splitting the two poles into separate individuals and then fusing them together with the bonds of lasting friendship, again, like Kirk's passion and Spock's reason, the two find a harmonious balance that makes for a workable whole. The fact that Holliday is dying makes him somewhat more acceptable to the Western's traditional morality than he otherwise might be—such characters are usually, and otherwise, required to be "killed off" in the end—but that Earp and Holliday need each other, spiritually as well as physically, is undeniable.

    Curiously, in John Sturges' 1967 Hour of the Gun, Jason Robards' Holliday serves as the conscience of James Garner's Earp, a function Kirk Douglas' Holliday had not fulfilled in regards to Burt Lancaster's Earp in Sturges' Gunfight at the OK Corral a decade earlier. The earliest interpretations of the Earp myth did not progress past the OK Corral shootout; but this changed in the 1960s, as did so many other things in American life, and the cynical, morally ambiguous Holliday gained stature, recognized as Earp's equal as never before.

    It might be pretentious to claim that Vietnam was the reason that the OK Corral shootout no longer satisfied the needs of those who continued to find meaning in the Earp mythology; but the fact is that, by the time Sturges made his follow-up to Gunfight at the OK Corral, the kind of swift, violent, decisive action the OK Corral symbolized no longer seemed capable of solving America's problems. In fact, the OK shootout opens rather than closes Hour of the Gun, and the rest of the film's action devolves from it. It instigates the ambush of Virgil and the assassination of Morgan, which, according to Sturges and scenarist Edward Anhalt, drives Earp from righteous lawman to self-righteous avenger—at one point, Holliday offers Earp his whiskey flask, saying, "If you're going to kill like me, you might as well drink like me!"

    Laughably, the film begins with a legend stating that "this is the way it really happened." Like the later Tombstone and Lawrence Kasdan's Wyatt Earp (1994), the film buys into the fantasy that Earp hung around Arizona, somehow deputized as a U.S. Marshal, to hunt down those responsible for the attacks on his brothers, when in fact he fled for his life from a murder indictment brought against him by Sheriff Behan! Why this fabrication is so essential to the post-sixties Earp myth is, again, perhaps a function of the OK shootout's perceived inability to settle matters; the Earp mythologizers have become as cynical as the earlier Hollidays, and the Wyatt Earps played by Garner, Russell and Costner have more in common with Holliday than ever before. They are at best flawed heroes, whom the earlier Earps—Randolph Scott in 1939's Frontier Marshal, Richard Dix in 1942's Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die, Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine, and Burt Lancaster in Gunfight at the OK Corral—would hardly recognize.

    Yet 1993's Tombstone remains enormously effective, despite its many falsehoods and gaffes—nobody ever reloads in this film, and "six-shooters" discharge rounds like automatic weapons, perhaps in keeping with the film's absurd assertion that "the cowboys" represented "the earliest example of organized crime in America." Russell's Earp, a flawed but basically good man, is easily accessible to modern audiences, made even more so by his resemblance to the rogue cop and detective heroes of contemporary action cinema, the violent crime thrillers which Tombstone, with its talk of "organized crime," deliberately emulates. Yet the most memorable and compelling character is without a doubt Val Kilmer's Holliday; and despite a cast that includes everyone from teen heartthrob Jason Priestly (in a bizarrely effeminate portrayal of Billy Breakenridge) to Charlton Heston (as rancher Henry Lee Hooker), Kilmer's performance almost single handedly carries the film.

    The fact that it is now Holliday, and not Earp, who carries the myth says much about modern America. For the cynical, world-weary Holliday is now the character who most appeals to audiences, and to whom they most relate. For we have become more than a little suspicious of Wyatt Earp, the "hero," the "good guy"; after Vietnam, Watergate, endless scandals and the constant expectation of venality and corruption in those whom we are supposed to admire, respect, trust and obey, we now suspect that Wyatt Earp, the man of the myth, is indeed too good to be true. Holliday, on the other hand, we can understand, and accept; we can identify with him, for, like us, he has learned to be suspicious, mistrustful, cynical and pessimistic. Yet we can take comfort in the fact that, as Earp's friend, he is not all bad; and we can infer from the fact that Earp is his steadfast friend that Earp perhaps is someone we can trust, and in whom we can have faith—someone, as Kilmer's Holliday puts it, who can give us hope; which we now apparently need as badly as Doc Holliday.

    Thus we can see how the balance has shifted, how Holliday has gone from Earp's "dark side" in the pre-sixties interpretation of the myth, to his conscience in Sturges' 1967 interpretation of the myth; and indeed, from this point, how the characters' positions have essentially been inverted. For if, in the earlier versions of the myth, Earp was Holliday's justification, it is Holliday in the most recent versions who is Earp's justification. This inversion reaches its peak (or bottom, if you prefer) in Frank Perry's 1971 Doc, where the roles traditionally assigned to Earp and Holliday are reversed: Stacy Keach's Holliday attempts to be honest and tries (albeit unsuccessfully) to do "good," while Harris Yulin's Earp remains unregenerately venal and corrupt.

    What this all adds up to is the observation, if not terribly profound, that the myth of Wyatt Earp and his conflict in old Tombstone offers something for everyone. Those who need a staunch, upright hero to uphold the moral order and establish the rule of law have the figure of the mythical Earp; those who need to take things with a bit more salt have the figure of the mythical Doc Holliday. Tombstone, a town that blossomed in the desert like a cactus flower, almost overnight, with its combination of community and corruption, provides the ideal backdrop upon which to enact the various Earp/Clanton scenarios; and the OK Corral delivers the quintessential shootout.

    That it is largely and mostly a lie seems, in light of this, of little consequence. For after all, we Americans, collectively, much prefer a good, self-serving, self-righteously vindictive lie to the honest, brutal, frank and unpleasant truth any day. It is why, I suppose, we are such eternally myopic optimists, even when we all know, deep down inside, that we, our nation, culture and civilization, are doomed.


    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    * By name, Charles Bassett, Bill Tilghman, Neal Brown, and Ed Masterson (given posthumously to his younger brother, William Barclay "Bat" Masterson). Aside from students of Western lore, who remembers these names today, including Ed Masterson?

    Note as to attachment below; the gunfight at the OK Corral was actually fought at that close of a range.
    Last edited by Gladstone; Wednesday, November 5th, 2003 at 09:48 PM.
    Turman found a copy of The Graduate, and thought highly enough of the story that he made a movie he considered to be 90-percent faithful to the book.

    But Turman and director Mike Nichols made one key adaptation, changing the Braddocks from WASP-y blonde characters into a dark-haired, more ethnic-looking family.

    From NPR's Present at the Creation

    http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/graduate/

    http://www.norcalmovies.com/TheGraduate/tg11.jpg

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